Sheriff Clarence Birkhead announced Mar. 16 that due to concerns about COVID-19, all in-person and video visitation to the Durham County Detention Center is suspended. Advocates from the ACLU, Duke Law, and the Safe and Human Jails Project, among others, are pushing for more changes to protect inmates’ health.
Recent arrivals to the jail will undergo an additional screening for symptoms of COVID-19, and attorneys will only be able to communicate with clients through video kiosks. All first appearance hearings will be conducted by video conference.
These changes will affect all 369 inmates currently housed at the jail.
AnnMarie Breen, public information officer at the sheriff’s office, said the medical staff at the detention facility spoke to detainees about COVID-19, including how the virus is spread and proper hand washing techniques. Detainees are responsible for cleaning their cells, she said, and the jail has an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and other cleaning products.
“We feel like we’re doing the most that we can to make sure that those CDC guidelines are being complied with,” Breen said.
District Attorney Satana Deberry released a statement Mar. 20 emphasizing that her office has taken steps to reduce the detained population. In February last year, the DA’s office implemented a pretrial release policy that recommends releasing non-violent offenders without monetary conditions.
“As a result of these policies and efforts by judicial officials, law enforcement officers and defense attorneys, the population of the Durham County Detention Facility is already well below capacity,” she wrote.
Last week, her staff began stepping up reviews of the jail population and working to safely release individuals, particularly those who do not pose a public safety risk, are over 60 years old, or have pre-existing health conditions that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19.
Attorney Daniel Meier said attorneys are still allowed unlimited visitation with their clients in jail, and he’s able to meet with his clients 24/7. Instead of meeting in the attorney booths, where attorneys can slide paperwork to their clients, they are now communicating through secure video booths.
The jail has 12 attorney booths but only two video booths. Now that video booths are in high demand for attorneys to meet with their clients, there can be delays, Meier said.
Breen said that remote visitation might even be slightly more popular recently. Usually, she said, because of the costs involved with setting up remote visitation, there was a small fee associated with the service. Right now, the service is free, so many people are taking advantage of remote visitation.
In a letter to the Chairman and President of North Carolina’s Sheriff’s Association, advocates recommended that sheriff’s departments across the state implement additional precautions due to the anticipated spread of COVID-19. Advocates have suggested several strategies to reduce the county jail populations and maintain humane conditions of confinement.
To reduce county jail populations, the signatories of the letter have suggested releasing all individuals over 65 years old, those who have medical conditions that the CDC considers vulnerabilities in this outbreak, pregnant individuals, and others, unless there would be a serious safety risk to the community. They suggested stopping arrests for low-level offenses and issuing citations instead of arrests.
Within the jails, signatories have suggested eliminating medical co-pays, ensuring adequate access to cleaning supplies, and avoiding the use of lockdowns or solitary confinement as a way to contain a potential COVID-19 outbreak.
The signatories have emphasized maintaining confidential access to counsel, which Durham has implemented through the video kiosks available to attorneys and bonding agents, according to Sheriff Birkhead’s announcement.
“I’m not worried because, fortunately, we’ve got a very proactive defense bar. The DA’s office has stepped up and is working with us — so are the judges, the sheriff’s department,” Meier said. “I don’t know how other counties are doing it, but Durham is working together.”
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